A Brief History of Common Cannabis

I want to start the year out with a refresher of cannabis politics. This is a three part series that will illuminate some of the medical research and breakthroughs that have happened over the last few decades.


“We would rather see our neighbors suffer than succeed ourselves.” Common British phrase


Cannabis legalization is a tale of two worlds- inside the United States and outside the United States. Roger Adams successfully filed a patent for isolating cannabinoids with the US patent office in 1947[i]. It was the first time that cannabinoids were isolated. Almost 20 years later, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated the specific chemical compounds in cannabis; the THC and CBD molecules were diagramed for the first time in his lab.[ii] While Mr. Adams’ findings were filed away and left to collect dust, Dr. Mechoulam would go on to have a career in cannabis experiments that now place Hebrew University as the pinnacle of canna medicine and research development.

In order to understand CBD (as well as THC and other cannabinoids) better, a bit of history is necessary. The oldest uses for hemp were as fiber and food. By 2700 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung recognized cannabis as medicine. He also brought ginseng and ephedra into the lexicon of Chinese Herbal Medicine.[iii] The cannabis plant is all over Hinduism. A 1200s BC text called the Atharva Veda notes cannabis as one of five sacred plants[iv]. There are ties to Moses and Solomon in the Old Testament, but they all seem to revolve around the work of the 20th century Polish Anthropologist Sula Bennet.  She argued that “calamus” and “reed” are both words for “kaneh” or “kaneh bosm”.[v]

Hemp history in the United States has deep roots in cannabis production. Our founding fathers grew hemp. Thomas Jefferson drafted a version of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. He was also famously quoted as saying “Hemp is the first necessity and protection of the country”[vi].

Just 5 years after Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937[vii], the US Government realized that they needed hemp to protect the country. As national pride was swelling, the hemp mills sprang up all over the country. They made the parachutes, clothes, tents, and rope for the upcoming war. The offspring of those plants can be seen growing healthy all over Nebraska today. (Colorado hemp growers are looking at the feral fields in Nebraska longingly. They know that NE hemp is the best around. But they cannot grow it because it is not grown in Colorado. Colorado law does not allow for outside genetics to be grown in Colorado.)

Americans quickly forgot about hemp after World War II. Until 1970.  This is when Richard Nixon began his crusade against cannabis.  This was the year that Nixon created the Shafer Commission to study the whole cannabis plant and its effects on American culture.

The Commission submitted their report to the Nixon Administration in 1972. It was not what the President was expecting. The report concluded that “… the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgement, rank very high. We would deemphasize marihuana as a problem”.[viii]

(an exerpt of the shafer commission hearing before Congress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksSolkofnP8[ix])

Of course, Nixon completely disregarded the results of the Report. It stated that the Commission greatly understood how yellow journalism contributed to an “extensive degree of misinformation about marihuana as a drug)” and that they “have tried to demythologize it”.[x] What did President Nixon do with the results of the report that his conservative hand-picked experts gave him?

John Erhlichmann, one of the Watergate Co-conspirators, has a bit of insight:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”[xi]

Instead of listening to his hand-picked commission of experts, Nixon made cannabis a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”[xii]. They succeeded in their mission. “Nearly 40 years later, in 2001 the number of former prisoners living in the United States more than doubled, from 1,603,000 to 4,299,000”[xiii]

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the black populations in the United States  saw a steady increase throughout the 1980’s. The drug arrests of the 1980s saw peak numbers in 1989, with 220,000 drug arrests for black people alone.[xiv] The next 14 years would show swings in the arrest numbers. None of them were as drastic as the 1989 arrests, but they did regularly arrest more than 100,000 black americans annually since. Unfornuately, we never saw the pre-Reagan numbers of less than 50,000 arrests-per-year again.

If the numbers for drug dealers/manufacturers were all black, then these numbers could show progress. According to a Brookings article that referenced a 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “6.6% of white adolescents and young adults (aged 12 to 25) sold drugs, compared to just 5.0 percent of blacks (a 32 percent difference)”[xv]

Cannabis activism is a lesson in human ignorance. It is the story of a government that used yellow journalism to spread fear among their white citizens in order to create a panic and establish resolutions that would demoralize and marginalize the melanin-enhanced people of the United States. They did this by pushing fear and covering up all the other alternatives. The American political propaganda machine dumped buckets of money into prohibitive research. They refused to fund any study that hypothesized any different results.

One study in 1973 discovered opioid receptors in the brain[xvi]. The prohibitionists wanted to find that golden bullet that was proof that cannabis hijacks Cannabinoid receptors in the brain like heroin did for opioid receptors. It would have been a home run for the propaganda of prohibition. Fifteen years later, Allyn Howlett and William Devane to finally discovered cannabinoid (CB) receptors in mice[xvii].

“Soon after, in 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor was found- as part of the immune and nervous systems. Dubbed CB2… receptors they are found to be plentiful throughout the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells and even the reproductive organs.”[xviii]. They found that there were both CB-1 and CB-2 receptors in mice.

At the same time, Dr. Mechoulam’s lab would go on to discover that the human body has its own “endocannabinoid anandamide” in 1992[xix][xx]. “Anandamide is produced in the cell membranes and tissues of the body”. It is a “neurotransmitter and an endocannabinoid”[xxi]. Taken from the Sanskrit word, Ananda (bliss), this molecule is the cannabinoid that, “when it binds to the cannabinoid receptor, it has a calming effect”[xxii]. This is not what the folks at the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) wanted to learn. It was discovered outside of their jurisdiction, in Israel, so NIDA had no influence on the experiment. A system that synthesizes the 85+ compounds of the cannabis plant within the human body is something to be studied, not imprisoned.

(there is a great deep dive into anandamide here[xxiii]. It talks about anadamide in chocolate as well as its role in the first communications between a mother and her newly forming fetus) (Black Truffles also have anandamide in them.)[xxiv]

These pioneers paved the way for the next generation of scientists to dig in to the medical benefits of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system (ECB). They have found clinical uses for a range of physical and mental ailments. Epilepsy, Fibromyalgia, Multiple sclerosis, Cancer, and Alzheimers are a few of the ailments that research is digging into. In my next segment, I will do a bit of a dive into the research that has come back from the scientific community.

[i] https://www.google.com/patents/US2419936

[ii] http://cannabisdigest.ca/discovered-thc-setting-record-straight/

[iii] https://www.nap.edu/read/9586/chapter/3#14

[iv] https://books.google.com/books?id=Bq9Qm-7Q95sC&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32&dq=Atharvaveda+bhang&source=bl&ots=w-hqyaOHr-&sig=flUCbrIgOZvu8nQC37GlcEBDGPU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi0uL7ktsfRAhUJllQKHS42Bo4Q6AEIMzAE#v=onepage&q=Atharvaveda%20bhang&f=false


[vi] https://www.theweedblog.com/americas-founding-fathers-loved-hemp/

[vii] http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/13.htm

[viii] http://druglibrary.net/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/ncrec.htm

[ix] http://druglibrary.net/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/ncrec.htm

[x] http://druglibrary.net/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/ncrec.htm

[xi] http://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

[xii] https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml

[xiii] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/piusp01.pdf

[xiv] https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=datool&surl=/arrests/index.cfm#

[xv] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2014/09/30/how-the-war-on-drugs-damages-black-social-mobility/

[xvi] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/182/4119/1359


[xviii] https://www.marijuanatimes.org/the-endocannabinoid-system-a-history-of-endocannabinoids-and-cannabis/


[xx] https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/cannabinoid-science-101-what-is-anandamide/

[xxi] http://theleafonline.com/c/science/2014/08/endocannabinoid-profile-crash-course-anandamide/

[xxii] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/the-feel-good-gene.html






One thought on “A Brief History of Common Cannabis

  1. Excellent read, though I would also consider sourcing Martin Lee, who wrote ‘Smoke Signals’. I got to see him speak in Santa Cruz and the advice he left the audience with is this; that even though the pendulum seems to be swinging the our way, towards sensible dialogues about an amazing healing balm, there’s still a fight on our hands. A powerful pharmaceutical industry has no interest in any cannabis based medical treatments as long as they feel they cannot control it, or isolate everything & try to patent it. They seem to prefer single molecules for rigidly defined ailments, because they have no interest in ‘holistic’ anything, it’s not good for their business model.

    Liked by 1 person

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